Charles Whitehead: Social Mirrors

In the depths of the Bad Semester (how I now refer to the last four months), Dr. Charles Whitehead contacted me to share notes on neuroanthropology. I’m trying to catch up with the immense backlog of material I need to work through, but I thought I would post a short note and a link to his website, Social Mirrors. It’s a pretty interesting spread of thinking, and Dr. Whitehead has provided numerous links to his papers and other material.

Dr. Charles Whitehead
Dr. Charles Whitehead

I especially like his piece with Prof. Robert Turner, downloadable here, on the effects of collective representations on the brain. In particular, the Turner and Whitehead article argues that the idea that certain areas of the brain are networked into a ‘social brain’ — implying that the rest of the brain is ‘not social’ — is hard to support. I’ll admit that I don’t necessarily use the same language or conceive of how the brain works in the ways described by Turner and Whitehead, but it is well worth the read to check it out, if for no other reason that it provides a corrective to some emerging ways of theorizing brain enculturation.

Turner and Whitehead take the multiple senses of the word, ‘representation,’ especially the conflicting use by anthropologists and social scientists, on the one hand, and brain sciences, as a point of departure. Normally, I just find the overlap annoying and have argued that it is one reason that anthropologists don’t ‘get it’ when it comes to neurosciences (for example, in Beyond Bourdieu’s ‘body’ — giving too much credit?). But Turner and Whitehead have something more constructive to say about the unstable term (from their conclusion):

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Balance between cultures: equilibrium training

Way back in January, I posted ‘Equilibrium, modularity, and training the brain-body.‘ At the American Anthropology Association annual meeting, I presented my current version of this research, significantly updating it with ethnographic material from Brazil, a comparative discussion of different techniques for training balance, and a series of graphics that I hope help to make my points. The title of that paper was ‘Balancing Between Cultures: A Comparative Neuroanthropology of Equilibrium in Sports and Dance.’

I’ve decided to post a version of this paper here, with the caveat that it’s still a work-in-progress. I’d be delighted to read any feedback people are willing to offer.

Introduction

Boca d' Rio does a bananeira
Boca d' Rio does a bananeira
As a cultural anthropologist interested in the effects of physical training and perceptual learning, I see ‘neuroanthropology’ as a continuation of the cognitive anthropology advocated by Claudia Strauss and Naomi Quinn (1997).

The new label, however, reflects engagement with a new generation of brain research, what Andy Clark (1997) refers to as ‘third wave’ cognitive science, or work on embodied cognition.1 Much of the ‘third wave’ does not focus strictly on what we normally refer to as ‘cognition,’ that is, consciousness, memory, or symbolic reasoning. Rather embodied cognition often highlights other brain activities, such as motor, perceptual and regulatory functions, and the influence of embodiment on thought itself; this is the reason I’m thrilled to have endocrinologist Robert Sapolsky as part of this panel, as his work is part of the expanded engagement of neuroanthropology with organic embodiment.2.

My own entry into neuroanthropology results from three influences: a phenomenological interest in cultural variation in human perception, anthropological study of embodiment, and apprenticeship-based ethnographic methods. This method posed an odd question during my field research on the Afro-Brazilian martial art and dance, capoeira. Simply put, as a devoted apprentice-observer, I failed to maintain hermeneutical agnosticism and started to ask, ‘Is what my teachers and peers report — and I too seem to be experiencing — plausible?’

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Habits to Help

Val Curtis
Val Curtis

Warning: Habits May Be Good For You highlights the anthropologist Val Curtis’ work to synthesize anthropology, public health, and consumer behavior. She has a simple problem, how to teach children in sub-Saharan Africa to habitually wash their hands, thus lowering significantly the risk of many diseases. As Charles Duhigg writes, Curtis turned to consumer-goods companies for insight into her work.

She knew that over the past decade, many companies had perfected the art of creating automatic behaviors — habits — among consumers. These habits have helped companies earn billions of dollars when customers eat snacks, apply lotions and wipe counters almost without thinking, often in response to a carefully designed set of daily cues.

“There are fundamental public health problems, like hand washing with soap, that remain killers only because we can’t figure out how to change people’s habits,” Dr. Curtis said. “We wanted to learn from private industry how to create new behaviors that happen automatically.”

The companies that Dr. Curtis turned to — Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive and Unilever — had invested hundreds of millions of dollars finding the subtle cues in consumers’ lives that corporations could use to introduce new routines.

If you look hard enough, you’ll find that many of the products we use every day — chewing gums, skin moisturizers, disinfecting wipes, air fresheners, water purifiers, health snacks, antiperspirants, colognes, teeth whiteners, fabric softeners, vitamins — are results of manufactured habits. A century ago, few people regularly brushed their teeth multiple times a day. Today, because of canny advertising and public health campaigns, many Americans habitually give their pearly whites a cavity-preventing scrub twice a day, often with Colgate, Crest or one of the other brands advertising that no morning is complete without a minty-fresh mouth…

“Our products succeed when they become part of daily or weekly patterns,” said Carol Berning, a consumer psychologist who recently retired from Procter & Gamble, the company that sold $76 billion of Tide, Crest and other products last year. “Creating positive habits is a huge part of improving our consumers’ lives, and it’s essential to making new products commercially viable.”

Habits

Habitual behavior is one topic that concerns brain science, psychology, economics and anthropology, each with disciplinary specific ways of trying to explain these everyday patterns. However, most of those explanations have two flaws: some variety of rationality as the way to understand habits, and some causal force (e.g., genetics, reward, subjective utility, culture) as forming the pattern. But things are not quite so simple, as “Habits May Be Good For You” shows:

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Cabbies’ brains

The BBC has a nice piece covering the continuing research of Prof. Eleanor Maguire (Wellcome Institute of Neurology, University College London) on the distinctive development of the hippocampus in the brains of London taxi drivers: Taxi drivers’ brains ‘grow’ on the job. Prof. Maguire’s research in this area is pretty extensive (see publication list). She’s found a great naturally occurring experiment in the brains of cabbies who have to navigate London’s notoriously byzantine downtown streets.

As the BBC report describes, driving a cab in London is difficult and demands a well-developed knowledge of urban geography:

In order to drive a traditional black cab in London drivers have to gain “the knowledge” – an intimate acquaintance with the myriad of streets in a six-mile radius of Charing Cross.

It can take around three years of hard training, and three-quarters of those who embark on the course drop out, according to Malcolm Linskey, manager of London taxi school Knowledge Point. “There are 400 prescribed runs which you can be examined on but in reality, you can be asked to join any two points,” he told BBC News Online.

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Monkeys and robots teaming up — worried?

As Daniel discussed in January in Monkey Makes Robot Walk!, a number of researchers are working on brain-machine interfaces by attaching prostheses to monkeys. Science Daily carries a new story, Mind Over Matter: Monkey Feeds Itself Using Its Brain, about a University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine experiment in which a monkey successfully used a human-like prosthetic limb to feed itself. As the Science Daily story reports:

Using this technology, monkeys in the Schwartz lab are able to move a robotic arm to feed themselves marshmallows and chunks of fruit while their own arms are restrained. Computer software interprets signals picked up by probes the width of a human hair. The probes are inserted into neuronal pathways in the monkey’s motor cortex, a brain region where voluntary movement originates as electrical impulses. The neurons’ collective activity is then evaluated using software programmed with a mathematic algorithm and then sent to the arm, which carries out the actions the monkey intended to perform with its own limb. Movements are fluid and natural, and evidence shows that the monkeys come to regard the robotic device as part of their own bodies.

According to the team, this is the ‘first’ example of the ‘use of cortical signals to control a multi-jointed prosthetic device for direct real-time interaction with the physical environment (’embodiment’)’ (from the abstract to the Nature article) (I’m always dubious about such ‘firsts,’ especially as this team has been announcing work on this project since at least 2004; but the research is still fascinating even if not a ‘first’).

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David Brooks, Part One: The Cognitive Age

For those of you who believe the mind the center of all things, David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, has two editorials this week that point to wider transformations that are shaping the world in which we live. And thus our very minds.

In this post I’ll cover yesterday’s editorial The Cognitive Age, which starts with taking the over-hyping of globalization to task. “Globalization is real and important. It’s just not the central force driving economic change.” After all, globalization is an old process, kicked into high gear by the European nations in the 1500s, as Eric Wolf and Sidney Mintz have convincingly shown with their books, Europe and the People Without History and Sweetness and Power.

Brooks wants to make a different point about today’s global economy: “Global competition has accounted for a small share of job creation and destruction over the past few decades. Capital does indeed flow around the world. But as Pankaj Ghemawat of the Harvard Business School has observed, 90 percent of fixed investment around the world is domestic. Companies open plants overseas, but that’s mainly so their production facilities can be close to local markets.”

In other words, Brooks wants to side-step the pro vs. con debate about globalization and free markets, with Thomas Friedman and his The World Is Flat on the more-or-less optimist side and Joseph Stiglitz and his Globalizations and Its Discontents on the more-or-less pessimist side. (And for a critical take on all the pundits, see the collection edited by Catherine Besteman and Hugh Gusterson, Why America’s Top Pundits Are Wrong: Anthropologists Talk Back.)

Brooks points to local change as a critical feature in our changing world, something that anthropologists have often discussed but in a much different fashion. For example, Carla Freeman in High Tech and High Heels in the Global Economy: Women, Work and Pink-Collar Identities in the Caribbean shows how the arrival of global jobs in Barbados, in this case high-tech informatics jobs, reworked local gender relations and feminine identities. In a more drastic sense, Beatriz Manz shows with her book Paradise in Ashes how global politics and local elites mixed in terrible fashion to drive the harrowing destruction of the highland Maya in Guatemala. Global processes always work through local structures, whether we’re taking about globalization or about the brain.

Brooks’ piece comes down to two forces, technological change and skills, with an obvious auxiliary: the need for education. “The chief force reshaping manufacturing is technological change (hastened by competition with other companies in Canada, Germany or down the street). Thanks to innovation, manufacturing productivity has doubled over two decades. Employers now require fewer but more highly skilled workers. Technological change affects China just as it does the America… The central process driving this is not globalization. It’s the skills revolution.”

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